Fresh Blood

Name: Pete Sortwell

Title of Book: So Low, So High

'...I found ‘So Low, So High’ to be an addictive read which is funny, poignant and thought provoking.'

Simon Brewster is an addict. Weed, charlie and heroin are his regular drugs of choice but he’ll try anything that gets him high. Alcohol also features as part of his daily diet.

Friends and family fall prey to his desire to feed his habits as regularly as shops and superstores do, as Simon will steal anything from anybody so long as he can get his next fix. ‘So Low, So High’ follows the trials and tribulations as Simon tries rehab, ends up in court and gets continually off his face.

Sortwell’s debut crime novel is a novel with a difference. It looks at the life of a drug addled petty criminal rather than the person solving the crime. While there are many books which are written from the criminal’s viewpoint, few focus on the smaller crimes or the urges which compel the criminals to commit them. Think ‘Trainspotting’ not ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ or ‘The Maltese Falcon’!

Written entirely in the first person with a searing honesty, Simon’s thoughts and feelings are exposed in the taut prose which draws you into his world, and has you flip-flopping between cheering his efforts at rehab and condemning some of his more despicable actions. Sortwell has a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter with a dry witticism or throwaway quip which lightens the sometimes heavy nature of the novel.

There is wonderfully detailed depiction of the damage addiction has upon the users, their friends, family and society in general. ‘So Low, So High’ also points out many deficiencies in the justice and welfare system, as Simon knows of or learns every possible trick going.

While not my usual fare, I found ‘So Low, So High’ to be an addictive read which is funny, poignant and thought provoking.

Reviewed by: G.S.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) After writing so many short stories, what compelled you to try your hand at a novel?
It was actually the other way round with me. I started writing ‘So Low, So High’ before I wrote a short story. I think I was four chapters into it when I found the Radgepacket series that had published my favourite author, Danny King’s short stories. I needed to know I was able to write something worthy of publication. I also didn’t want to get to eighty thousand words and find out I’d written a complete turkey, so I set about writing my first short, It was called ‘Dave was an addict’ and with all the enthusiasm of Adrian Mole I sent it off to Byker Books and waited by the phone, for the call saying I’d definitely be able to give up work and live off the proceeds of my wonderful work. It didn’t come.

What did come was an email suggesting that I join a writing group, which I acted upon. ‘Win – win’ my next attempt at a short story was accepted and published in Radgepacket volume five. It features Simon Brewster and is written in the same style as the book. This gave me a huge boost in confidence and I’ll be forever grateful to the Byker Books crew for the chance to hold a book in my hands featuring my name that wasn’t a school report that I was looking to hide somewhere.
2) ‘So Low, So High’ can on some levels be compared to ‘Trainspotting’, however it also removes any hint of glamour from drug taking. Was this a conscious message you put in?
Simon is at the end of his journey and any (false) glamour that may have been in his life, and the life of many other people who suffer the same affliction as him, has long since disappeared by the time we catch up with him. I wanted people to see that contrary to the Daily Mail’s belief that everyone who uses drugs is making a choice to have the life they end up with, sometimes people who do end up doing it are suffering from an extreme mental, emotional and physical illness which they’re completely stuck in, unable to see a way out. The compulsion to feel different, to feel better is overbearing and once drugs takes that away the progressive nature of the illness is underway. I don’t think anyone you see on the streets woke up one morning and decided that being there was a valid life choice, or decided at school that by the time they were thirty they’d be injecting into their groin. Simon is an extreme example, sadly though, he isn’t all that uncommon. Even sadder, there are people worse off than him.
3) How did you research the various elements of drug taking and the effects they had on Simon?
I’m in the fortunate position to have met people that have recovered completely from that way of life and lived not only to tell their story but to show others how they have done it. It is a privilege and an honour that I call some of these people my friends and stand next to them in their journey of recovery. I’ve listened to a lot of people’s stories and some of them feed into and influence Simon. My past of struggling with drugs and alcohol in my early twenties is no secret, having said that, I will underline the point that ‘So Low, So High’ is not autobiographical in anyway, my life wasn’t interesting enough to fill one page let alone two hundred odd.
4) Simon’s story sees him exploit the welfare and justice system for his own selfish ends. How much of what is in the book is actually true and how much is made up?
I think it’s important to note that most of the things Simon talks about in this book are about ten years old now. Thankfully drug treatment has moved on somewhat since I had any experience of it. It certainly used to be the case that for someone like Simon to get effective treatment that wasn’t a high dose of methadone and a smile every other week was extremely difficult. Up until very recently the answer for drug dependence was more drugs. (I know) The benefit system is still a mess, I think it always will be as it isn’t the system that needs changing so much as the people who game it and they’ll always be people that game it and the ones who are honest will lose out. Of course, I’ve used a bit of artistic license and opinion within the story but none of what you’ll read is either blue sky or unheard of. People are overworked, underpaid and fed up of people like Simon. Let’s not mess about. Using addicts and alcoholics are fairly annoying people to have around. I can see why there is the opinion about them, I just prefer to look at the causes of problems, that’s why it’s easier to find a solution.
5) You’ve written ‘So Low, So High’ entirely in the first person which makes the reader privy to Simon’s every thought. Was this a deliberate decision to allow you to make him so brutally honest with the reader?
Yes. That was exactly the reason I wrote it in the present tense. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject, both fiction and non-fiction and a lot seem to say things like ‘I now know’ and ‘Looking back now’, I didn’t want it to be a book telling the reader about addiction, I wanted them to experience it as much as possible. The best way to do that without going out and grabbing a few bottle and vodka and some kind of powder or other is through the eyes of someone else.
6) While Simon is from a city, you never give a location to where he lives. Why didn’t you establish where he’s from?
When I read, I like to be the one that paints the picture. Sometimes when people are force feeding descriptions down my throat, it just feels strange. I don’t want to know how many times someone lights a fag or in what stance they’re standing in as they’re talking to their fat balding DCI in the dusty, depressing crime room. My brain likes to paint the picture. Maybe it might be something to do with my dyslexia. I think in pictures so the thinner the frame of a story the better, for me.
7) Humour plays a big part of your short stories and eBook releases. Do you write the jokes to fit the scene or the scene to fit the jokes?
Normally I have an idea of something that I find funny, either a situation or a comment, then I build it around that. In ‘So Low, So High’, the humour comes from Simon’s inner thoughts. The way he is with people and the reason’s he’s doing things and the way he acts, as a reader you get to see the thinking behind it whereas if you didn’t he’d just be doing normal things which are funny in a strange way but not humorous. There’s a scene where he makes his Dad carry his bags from the car into the Rehab. We, as readers, know he’s done this because he feels his father parked too far away from the door and is punishing him for it by making him carry the bags.
8) How do you manage your writing time?
When I started writing I used to do it on what they called ‘sleep in’s’ at a hostel I worked in. What they actually were, were ‘staying awake all night, walking the corridors of the hostel telling people to behave. The time in-between having to keep things under control could be an hour or even two, I decided that rather than sitting in bitter resentment that my employer hated me enough to only paying me £30 for ten hours work AND expecting me to do a full shift the next day that I’d write. So writing ‘So Low, So High’ was ok for time.

However, I’ve recently changed jobs so there is less of it, that’s for sure. When I’m in writing mode, I do a minimum of one thousand words a day, regardless of what I’ve been doing that day, which usually means for a month or two I’m awake at 2am and just finishing off the writing I’ve done for that day. There’s a little Sortwell about to introduce herself to the world though so I may need to rethink my time. Hopefully I’ll still be able to keep up with the pace I’m used to. It may mean getting a small laptop to use in the car park at work on my break, now there’s an idea…
9) Do you ever plan to write a traditional ‘crime’ novel?
It’s an idea I’ve played with, the way book three of the Simon Brewster series is going there will be a straight crime novel to sit beside it. In fact, I’ve got about ten thousand words of ‘Get Fred’ penned and am waiting to see how it can fit in. So I do plan it, whether or not it happens is another thing, I’m just too partial to the humour that I see in even the darkest situations, which I hope readers will see.
10) Which three crime novels have made a lasting impression on you?
‘The Burglar Diaries’ by Danny King. If it wasn’t for this book I wouldn’t have even dreamed the style I’d like to tell a story in was possible. It was the cross over book from True crime to fiction. If you’ve not been lucky enough to read anything by Danny then I’d highly recommend it and tell you that I’m jealous of you being at the beginning of that particular journey.

‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’ by Andy Rivers’ Again, this inspired me to write in first person and from multiple people’s point of view. If I hadn’t read this I don’t think ‘The Idiot Reviews’ series would have come about.

‘Convictions’ by Julie Morrigan. This book was one of two that I read last year, both crime thrillers and both with pace that I could only aspire to. Most thrillers (that I’ve come across – I’m not a particularly big thriller reader, so no offence intended) seem to have lots of padding. This one doesn’t and races through at a rate of knots. It kept me up all night and I finished it in one sitting, there aren’t many writers that will get me to give up the few hours’ sleep I usually get, Morrigan did.